By Michael H. Osinski
For all of you who grew up and old with ESPN, you should know the Chris Berman mantra: “Nobody circles the wagons better than the Buffalo Bills.”
The Buffalo Bills are about to change. The owner, and last remaining member of the original AFL, Ralph Wilson, Jr. passed away Tuesday at the age of 95. I have a special affinity for the old AFL. I grew up in San Diego, played QB, and loved big time offense. My Grandfather, who is currently 95, has had season tickets for the AFL Chargers just shy of 50 years now. He has seen it all, and I just followed and admired. Ralph Wilson paid $25k for the Buffalo franchise after visiting Miami in 1959, and determined Western New York was a more viable market. Man, was he right. The Bills won a Championship in 1964 by defeating the Chargers. They won again in 1965. The team then played many years in obscurity, until they made it to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990’s. Despite not winning any of them, and opportunities to relocate the franchise, he kept the team in Western New York.
My Grandfather is the guy who made me love football. And, the football I learned to love was played in the AFL. Lance Alworth, who is a friend of my Father’s, was the best person to watch. He was graceful. The NFL was not. He was fluid. The NFL was not. My Grandfather got to watch all of this while it was happening. But it wasn’t just Alworth. The AFL had Otis Taylor. The AFL had George Blanda. But most of all, the AFL had Joe Namath. There was a game between the Chiefs and (my) Raiders, where Ben Davidson started a fight… a legendary fight. Everybody got kicked out, and George Blanda still kicked a last second FG to tie the game. Ha! Loved the Madden Raiders. I was OK with the Bills too. They drafted OJ Simpson and set up The Electric Co. But Ralph owes his bacon to Broadway Joe. I still have a Joe Namath #12 I wear a lot. He was simply awesome. Sure I love Ken Stabler, and follow anything Mike Vick, but Joe Namath is the guy that got Ralph Wilson’s risky proposition paid.
The AFL had survived 8 seasons playing a different brand of football. It was different, but extremely exciting. It included Charley Kerrigan catching 100 passes, Don Maynard scoring TD’s at will, and Joe Namath throwing for 4,007 yards in a 14-game season, when most QBs were lucky to throw for 2,000 yards. In 1966 the NFL agreed to play a Super Bowl: The NFL versus The AFL. It didn’t work so well at first, as Kansas City went to play the mighty Lombardi-lead Packers and fell flat 35-10. Year Two of the experiment saw the Raiders (13-1) go to the big game, only to lose 33-14. Then came Super Bowl III, where a brash QB out of Alabama had taken the AFL by storm. Again, 4007 yards wasn’t even fathomable then. If you think this year’s Broncos were a juggernaut, the 1968 Colts were untouchable. They had the best Running Backs, the best defense, and they were led by Johnny Unitas. In short, they were a bazillion point favorites. Needless to say, the NFL’s Baltimore Colts figured to embarrass the AFL’s New York Jets. With or without Broadway Joe, it was inevitable. The AFL was a league on life support. There were talks of a merger, but more likely if the Jets go down, the league probably does as well. Ralph’s $25K is on the line. When asked at the pool by reporters how the game would go, Joe Namath guaranteed his upstart Jets would beat the mighty Colts. Not just cover the point spread, he said the Colts were indeed going down. It was tough for anyone to believe his bravado, especially when he was wearing a mink coat. History tells us the Jets beat the Colts at their own game, and Matt Schnell ran roughshod over Baltimore’s mighty defense. The Jets in their 16-7 victory vindicated the AFL, and somewhere in Buffalo Ralph Wilson smiled.
That was in the past, and now the Bills need to circle the wagons again. The team needs to stay in Western New York. Buffalo is all about the Bills. They owe it to all of the original AFL’ers (like my Grandfather) to keep the AFL influence in the NFL alive. In the past couple of years Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams also passed, leaving Ralph Wilson as the lone surviving link. Not sure when, if ever, a few guys will take this kind of risk again. Ralph Wilson, You were a great man! Thank You Goomba, and may you rest in peace. Circle the wagons… the Wilson family needs us now.